Stupidity Kills: McCain/Vaccination edition.

As promised, a post about this story. In my previous post, I asked what was missing from this seemingly straightforward bit of science/medical reporting about a growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of fears that vaccines are unsafe.

The answer: a couple of things.

First, the piece had lots of numbers, but very little in the way of useful, contextual quantitative analysis.

For example, it would have been nice to know the ratio of the risk of serious complications of the vaccine to risk of the disease itself. That is, after all, the crux of most of the argument vaccine exempters make.

Second, the piece refers to the herd immunity concept, but never explains it — which is crucial, because the public health question (as opposed to the child abuse one) turns on the point at which refusal to immunize creates a big enough unvaccinated habitat in which a given illness starts to pose a risk to folks other than those who have chosen to risk disease rather than a shot.

Make no mistake — this piece does document, however imperfectly, a real problem. It catches the essence of the stupidity on the march in our rich, unprecedentedly healthy society in this passage:

It is the absence, or close to it, of some illnesses in the United States that keep some parents from opting for the shots. Worldwide, 242,000 children a year die from measles, but it used to be near one million. The deaths have dropped because of vaccination, a 68 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006.

“The very success of immunizations has turned out to be an Achilles’ heel,” said Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. “Most of these parents have never seen measles, and don’t realize it could be a bad disease so they turn their concerns to unfounded risks. They do not perceive risk of the disease but perceive risk of the vaccine.”

But the third, and the real point of this post, is that there is a really big hole in the NY Times story: nowhere does the author mention that a current candidate for the Presidency of the United States has very recently made this problem worse.

Last month, John McCain said the following, according to ABC News:

“It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.”

McCain said there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the matter, with “many on the other side that are credible scientists that are saying that’s not the cause of it.”

There is, of course, precisely the opposite of “strong evidence” that the vaccines cause autism. The NYT piece did point to the vaccine/autism panic as one wellspring for the movement to avoid vaccination, writing this:

Alexandra Stewart, director of the Epidemiology of U.S. Immunization Law project at George Washington University, said many of these parents are influenced by misinformation obtained from Web sites that oppose vaccination.

“The autism debate has convinced these parents to refuse vaccines to the detriment of their own children as well as the community,” Ms. Stewart said.

You would think that the fact that someone running for President is spouting the same myth, would register here. It has been less than a month since McCain exposed either his ignorance or his willingness to pander to an angry voter.

Whatever the source of his remarks, they provide direct demonstration of how credulity and intellectual sloth undermine science — and in this case, directly contribute to an evolving public health threat. It’s not good journalism to ignore elephants like this hanging around the edges of your story.

Beyond that: we’ve been lucky so far.

Measles is rare now, and likely to stay so in North America.

But outbreaks will continue to occur, and one may hit in an unlucky pocket of susceptibility to the diesease.

Meanwhile, other diseases have been getting more common. Pertussis, (aka whooping cough, for readers of a certain age), the “P” in the DPT shot is on the rise, with incidence rising fifteen fold in the last quarter-century, to over 25,000 cases in the US in 2004.

Sometime, probably not that far off, a kid or kids are going to die of entirely preventable illness because someone thought it was too damn risky to immunize their children.

Maybe they heard Senator McCain tell them that credible scientists thought so too. He should know better. And if he doesn’t know, then he should recognize his ignorance, and shut the hell up.

In my dreams.

Image: Louis-Léopold Boilly, “L’innoculation,” 1807. Source, Wikimedia Commons.

(I think I have used this picture in an earlier post, but it works so well here, so why not?)

Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, bad science, journalism, Journalism and its discontents, McCain, Medicine, Republican follies, science writing, Stupidity, Uncategorized, Who needs science?, Who thought that was a good idea?

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4 Comments on “Stupidity Kills: McCain/Vaccination edition.”


  1. […] McCain now has Nancy, the telecoms, a confidence in the surge, a lack of confidence in vaccines, a lack interest in Ron Paul, suggested that “zero-percentage” mortgage rates will help […]

  2. nunatak Says:

    Elephants on the edges – ha! Bravo, Tom.


  3. […] (nothing good, and actually worse than that) — and I’ve already taken whacks at a few of his more obvious gaps and loopiness on more or less scientific topics. There is nothing in his […]


  4. […] mean, consider this…or this…or this.  My inclination is to remain on the barricades; it’s hard for me to see how the moderate […]


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